When in Rome … or not

Donald and I are both working on short stories and novels in imaginary fantasy settings inspired by ancient Rome. This is not a case of being influenced by someone you spend a lot of time with. We’ve known each other less than 2 years, and we both started developing these imaginary worlds when we were in highschool. It was a little spooky when we realized how similar some of the stuff we’d come up with was. Okay, maybe not; we have read a lot of the same books, after all. In any event, we figured we’d better start spending more time together, keep an eye on the competition. Before we knew it, we were dating.

Anyway. Today Donald and I thought it would be fun to prepare an “authentic” ancient Roman dinner. I have several books on Roman cooking, most making liberal use of Apicius (the most famous ancient Roman cookbook author). I’ve found the most accessible and interesting to be Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa’s A Taste of Ancient Rome (translated by Anna Herklotz; original title was A cena da Lucullo). The author is a foodie with an archaeology background, and her goal was to take recipes from Apicius, Cato and other sources and provide a version that a modern cook could follow. The ancient sources tend not to provide a lot of detail. They’ll give the ingredients (most of them), and some vague clues as to preparation. America’s Test Kitchen it ain’t! Giacosa’s versions of the recipes should, theoretically, be doable in a modern kitchen.

They are, sort of. One thing to keep in mind is that the author is European, and originally wrote this in 1986. She substitutes ingredients when giving her versions of the ancient recipes, based on what a modern cook is likely to be able to find. However, what a European cook could find in 1986 is not necessarily the same as what an American cook can find in 2010 (and there’s also a huge difference between what I can get in Boston, and what someone in the midwest would be able to get their hands on). She’ll call for spices like rue and lovage (which I’ve never seen for sale except maybe in an occasional farmers market), and then suggest you use garlic instead of silphium, when even the Romans themselves (after silphium went extinct) started using asafetida. Which is to say: the recipes are usable, but if you’re an experienced cook you can probably get closer to the original flavors by coming up with your own amalgam of her recipe and the English translation of the Apicius (and your own knowledge of cooking, of course).

Donald and I prepared and enjoyed a 3-course dinner: to start, we had assorted olives, focaccia with olive oil and rosemary (purchased, not homemade; my focaccia recipe called for potatoes, and obviously that’s not authentic), and cheese: a soft, ripe goat’s milk cheese (Brunet, from Italy); and a Pecorino Romano (Italian sheep’s milk cheese). Apparently, cows were mostly beasts of burden, and most of the cheese consumed by the Romans was made from sheep and goats. For our main course, we had pork and apple stew. Then, for dessert, we made something called globi, which I’ll describe more later.

Even the modern version of the pork and apple stew recipe called for garum and defrutum. For garum, the ubiquitous Roman fish sauce, I was going to substitute Vietnamese fish sauce. But when we started cooking, I realized I was almost out. So I ended up using anchovy paste diluted with a bit of Worcestershire Sauce. While not exactly authentic, I think it’s reasonable to imagine that Worcestershire Sauce was inspired by garum, since anchovies are a major component of both, and Britain was under Roman occupation for a while. Defrutum is reduced grape must, a product of winemaking. The closest we could get for this was grape juice concentrate from a winemaking store. (You don’t want concentrated Welch’s, because that’s from an entirely different sort of grape, the Concord grape, native to eastern North America. To Concord, Massachusetts, in fact.)

The dessert globi were made from equal parts ricotta cheese and flour mixed together, formed into balls, and deep-fried in olive oil. We were actually supposed to use lard, but forgot to buy any. Then you drench them with honey and sprinkle with poppy seeds. In appearance, the finished dish actually reminded me of an Indian dessert, gulab jamun. This is made from concentrated milk mixed with flour and deep-fried in ghee, or clarified butter; the finished fried balls are then (in India) soaked in rosewater-flavored sugar syrup. I didn’t think our globi tasted much like gulab jamun, though. In fact, I think I liked them better. We used whole wheat flour for our globi (though the Romans did have white), so the balls were quite dense, and you couldn’t really taste or detect the cheese. But then, soaked in honey, they basically ended up tasting like chunks of hearty bread drenched with honey.

The pork stew was also very tasty. It called for “Matian apples” (at least Apicius calls for them), but we used Braeburn instead (it was the best we could do at Whole Foods; it’s possible that we should have used Granny Smiths though, because the Braeburns completely fell apart in the stew). The meat was a mixture of cubed pork butt and ground pork meatballs flavored with fresh cilantro and garum; the stew also had onions (it called for leeks, but amazingly we couldn’t find any that didn’t suck), “defrutum”, more “garum”, red wine vinegar, honey, cumin, pepper, more cilantro, and fresh mint. Oh, and some chicken stock to keep it from drying out and burning. The grape juice concentrate, which is very dark red, ends up making the stew very dark and quite sweet, but as long as you don’t mind sweet main courses (which I don’t!), it’s good.

We decided that reclining at the table would be too much work, and Donald doesn’t like wine. (I could have gotten some, but he probably would have told me I needed to mix it with water in order to be authentic.) We did eschew the use of forks, which were not used as eating utensils until the 1500s.

It was a good dinner, and a lot of fun to prepare. We might do it again sometime. We still have 375 mL of wine grape juice concentrate, after all.

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7 Responses to When in Rome … or not

  1. Mark B. says:

    Absolutely love the play-by-play on this.
    I can almost see the two of you throughout the process.
    Happy Holidays to both of you.

  2. Jessica Bennett says:

    The Internet can be a huge help in obtaining authentic ingredients when you can’t find any near where you live.

  3. Natalija Janz says:

    Wow! Sounds like you are a professional cook book writer! I have to tell you that some of the names I’ve never even heard of. You have a very special talent! I wonder what could you do if all three siblings could get together to make a dinner?! I think it would be fantastic!

    It was fun reading about your adventure of making this interesting meal. And your knowledge of history is amazing. Blows my mind away! I love history, but never thought that the “food history” is just as interesting if not more!


  4. Andy R. says:

    Kristin, wow, this sounds like a heck of a feast! I’m impressed at the lengths you and Donald went to recreate it. Carol and I are members of a Culinary Historians group and it’s just the kind of thing they are always doing 🙂

    I have a few suggestions for your substitutions (though I think you improvised well!):

    Colatura is modern anchovy sauce, pretty close to garum. We use it all the time to in pasta dishes.

    We actually have a bottle of something called sapa.made by Malpighi Acetaie, it’s called “Saba” but I’m betting it’s pretty much the same thing as defrutum. Anyway, you might check those out next time you do a feast.

    Now I’m hungry!


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